In the late afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011, shortly after the cheering stopped at Miller Park in Milwaukee, where the Brewers had beaten the Diamondbacks in the opening game of the NLDS, a specimen collector from a drug-testing agency asked Ryan Braun to produce a urine sample. Braun, the Milwaukee leftfielder who had three hits that day and would be named National League MVP the next month, complied. Then, as Major League Baseball testing guidelines require, Braun watched the agent split the specimen into two samples, cap the two bottles, seal them with tamper-resistant tape marked with an individual I.D. number, place the samples in a plastic bag, seal the bag, place it in a plastic box and seal the box. Finally Braun printed and signed his name as the "donor" on the standard Drug Testing Custody and Control Form.
Two days later, the specimens were shipped to a World Anti-Doping Agency--certified testing lab in Montreal. The lab chief, according to MLB sources, confirmed that the specimens had arrived with all three seals intact.
What happened in the in-between—between Saturday and Monday, between Milwaukee and Montreal and, most important for Braun, in that sliver of space between the law and the letter of the law—sent baseball down a new rabbit hole of steroid arcana. What is supposed to be the black-and-white, positive-or-negative world of drug testing dissolved into a murky, unsatisfying gray for all parties—with the possible exception of Braun's lawyers, who triumphed on a procedural technicality.
The Montreal lab found elevated levels of synthetic testosterone in Braun's specimens, a doping offense that carries a 50-game suspension. Braun appealed, becoming the 13th player to appeal a violation of MLB's drug policy. Last Thursday he became the first to win his appeal. Arbitrator Shyam Das cast the tiebreaking vote on a three-person panel that also included executives from the players' union and MLB.
The next day, under brilliant sunshine at the Brewers' training complex in Maryvale, Ariz., Braun proclaimed, "I guess the simple truth is I'm innocent. I've maintained my innocence from Day One, and ultimately I was proven to be innocent."
Well, not quite—not in this rabbit hole. Baseball was so convinced of Braun's guilt as a steroid cheat that it took the unusual step last Thursday, through a statement by executive vice president Rob Manfred, of announcing that it "vehemently disagrees with" Das's decision. A day later, after Braun had claimed that baseball's testing system was "fatally flawed," Manfred fired another shot. This time he stated that at no point in the appeal did Braun or the union suggest that the specimens had been tampered with.
Nor did Braun offer an explanation for the positive samples. The next day, with a club representative running interference for him, the player who had described himself earlier as "an open book" requested reporters not to ask him about the case.
Gary Wadler, past chairman of WADA's prohibited list committee, says Braun won his appeal "on procedural grounds" in which Das found a "variation, not a violation.
"I strongly disagree with anybody who claims there was a problem with the science. The science strongly suggests the arbitrator's decision was probably ill-advised. To be fair, [Braun] did have his day. Certainly the innocent athlete should feel secure that there is a process to state your case."
The most important turn in the Braun case was the one the specimen collector, Dino Laurenzi Jr., made after leaving Miller Park: toward his home in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and not toward one of the five nearby FedEx drop locations that, according to Braun, remained open on that Saturday evening. According to a section of the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) between the owners and players, "Absent unusual circumstances, the specimens should be sent by FedEx to the Laboratory on the same day they are collected."